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occupy wall street and change

The Occupy Wall Street protests are fascinating.  For a social movement scholar, these protests are like gold. We get a seemingly spontaneously organized protest that quickly captures the nation’s attention, replete with vivid imagery of protestors being harassed and arrested by police and a sudden diffusion of the protests to other large urban centers. And because the movement is evolving over time, we get a unique view into the dynamics of collective action and social change. Amazing stuff.

Jenn Lena’s photos on her blog tell a really interesting story about the internal dynamics of the protest. Looking at this organizing board, you can’t help but be impressed by the enormous effort of coordinating a protest of this scale.  Forget the coordination issues inherent in keeping an ideologically diverse group such as this together and marching in the same (roughly) direction or the incredible public relations job the activists are doing, some of the biggest and most problematic organizing issues are  more mundane (e.g. where do we get food and latrines for all these folks?). Organizing a protest of this size requires a massive amount of coordinating and organizing, and so the fact that this group is making it up on the spot is really impressive.

The movement has gained momentum to the point that now everyone is asking, what’s next? Where do we go with all of this energy? The resources are in place, the nation is watching, but does the movement have any objectives? I think that at a very abstract level, there is some agreement about what the objectives should be. For example, this video (again, thanks to Jenn for the link) points to an outcome of changing the process of community decision-making based on participation and consensus-building around a general assembly. Scholars of the 60s movements will recognize a lot of similarities in the philosophy behind the general assembly idea and the notion of participatory democracy practiced by groups like SDS. So one clear objective is to get more people involved in participatory democracy and form linkages between like-minded people who might form the base of a broader change-oriented movement. I think this is inspiring, and restoring this organizational know-how could be the most important product of these protests.

But clearly that’s not the only goal that participants in the movement would like to see accomplished. For one, restoring a process of participatory democracy in a relatively small social movement will have a limited impact on society unless they come up with other clearly articulated goals. In other words, while participatory democracy will certainly make a difference in the lives of those involved, at some point new demands have to be set if the movement is hoping to influence real social and political change. Those demands will probably come, even if it means losing many supporters who don’t see to eye-t0-eye on concrete reforms, but will it come soon enough? I think the time to strike is when the iron is hot, and right now the iron is HOT.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Occupy movement is that the media is completely on board and excited to cover protests again. Of course, for that the movement can thank mace-spraying cops and the massive arrests that followed marches like the one that took place on the Brooklyn Bridge. The intense drama that unfolds as passionate protestors are swept into police buses and carted off while singing Beatles songs is pure storytelling genius. Because of all this, journalists are listening (and consequently, so is the rest of the public). These kinds of media moments don’t come often and they don’t last long. If I were involved in these protests, I would not want to let this moment go to waste. We know that media coverage is one of the main mechanisms whereby activists influence their targets to do something, to change. If that’s the case, then the pressure is on now.

The problem, as I see it, is that the moment is going to waste. Yes, media coverage is helping the movement recruit more participants and is leading to the diffusion of tactics around the nation. That’s a positive outcome. But because the movement is focused more on process and less on targets, it’s likely that the movement’s moment will pass without specific demands being made or specific targets getting any pressure to do anything. I think that’s a shame. There are plenty of worthy targets out there that could be pressured to reform, but the media coverage of the protests fails to focus on any of these targets. It’s like the villains here are getting a free pass. In some ways this is the best thing ever for corporate America and politicians. The protestors make a lot of noise and capture the media’s attention, while they can blissfully go their way and do whatever the hell they want. The protestors are actually distracting the business press’s coverage away from serious reform efforts! You could make the case that these protests are being counterproductive, at least in the short term.

I can’t help but compare this movement to another protest movement that also generated a lot of media attention and seemed to form almost spontaneously among a set of diverse ideological groups – the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964.  Like the Occupy movement, the FSM emerged rather suddenly and was comprised of groups that had very different social change goals. Like the Occupy movement, the FSM was committed from the beginning to participatory democracy and consensus-building. The movement was also tactically masterful and figured out how to communicate their messages to the broader public via an engaged media. Of course, the biggest difference is that from its inception the FSM had very clearly defined goals. They wanted to be able to engage in political advocacy on campus and they didn’t want students who engaged in this advocacy to be singled out and punished by the Berkeley administration. The FSM knew who the “enemy” (.e., target) was and it knew what it wanted from its target. The clarity of its goals helped to sustain the movement even as different coalitions within it waxed and waned in their enthusiasm. They knew how to communicate those goals to the media, which gave them leverage when negotiating with the powers-that-be.

What some people forget about the FSM was that there was a broader process-oriented outcome that the movement pushed for as well. Many in the movement saw the immediate goals as just one step in a greater effort to completely revolutionize the university system and alter the manner in which people were educated. The “Free University” movement evolved from this.   The free university concept was similar to participatory democracy in form and intent. It intended to place greater responsibility and stewardship into the hands of the students themselves and would potentially overturn the old hierarchies of disciplines and departments. It was a grand idea that if it had been fully implemented would have disrupted the academic system as we know it. Parts of the free university system were actually set up as an experimental form of education on the Berkeley campus, and my understanding is that some of it persists in local Berkeley counterculture to this day.  You could argue the merits of such a system, but I’m trying to point out the deficiencies of this sort of process-based outcome. We rarely think of the free university concept when we consider the FSM, despite its true revolutionary potential. One reason is that it failed to materialize as part of the media narrative. Another is because changing a process occurs slowly and extends over a longer period of time than a discrete reform. But the other, and I think this is important, is that processes don’t have targets – they don’t have villains. That’s what is needed to make a movement story stick and to lead to eventual social reform. The FSM succeeded in getting their way, despite their relatively small numbers, in part because they were able to draw clear lines around who the good guys and bad guys were. They identified a discrete change that needed to take place, and then they united behind that change. They proved to be more united than their opponents in the administration. Once that goal was accomplished, it became much harder to sustain their previous level of mobilization while also keeping the media engaged*

Ultimately, the Occupation movement is going to need that kind of unity around a clear, discrete reform. The question is whether they will become united while the media still cares.

*The leftist leaders at Berkeley realized this, and so most of the post-FSM activism was redirected to the anti-war movement, which had a villain and fairly clear goals. One reason the free university movement faltered may have been that it simply couldn’t compete with anti-war activism.

Written by brayden king

October 3, 2011 at 4:33 pm

28 Responses

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  1. […] Brayden King compares the current Occupy Wall Street movement to the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Brayden argues that, somewhat like the FSM, Occupy Wall Street has a heavy participatory process […]

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  2. N. Kristoff offers his suggestions for targets today (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/opinion/sunday/kristof-the-bankers-and-the-revolutionaries.html?src=tp&smid=fb-share). He’s missing a lot of what people I talked to in the square would want: student loan forgiveness, the elimination of all nuclear weapons, a chance in our national environmental policy to get into line with *at least* the Kyoto Protocols, the prosecution of bank CEOs/CFOs who engaged in credit default swaps…etc.

    One of the things that should give us pause is the intense complexity of the group’s organizational tasks (aka “The Board”) and their efficiency at accomplishing them in combination with the lack of a non-process oriented purpose. The group is capable of producing a bullet pointed list of demands, but choose not to. I make this point just to ensure you don’t read Brayden’s excellent post and draw a conclusion about CAPACITY. There is already so much elitist “dirty hippies” smack-talking about the group, I think a reality check is in order.

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    Jenn Lena

    October 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

  3. I like the pic of the ‘organizing board’ – thanks Jenn! Very interesting (you can zoom in on some interesting details…).

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    teppo

    October 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

  4. Here’s another list of demands: http://www.good.is/post/three-concrete-demands-to-hold-wall-street-accountable/ I like this list because it’s fairly coherent, philosophically at least.

    I definitely agree with you Jenn about the capacity of the movement. One reason I think it’s so important to act now and not wait until the slow process of deliberation has generated goal consensus is because they clearly have the capacity at this moment. They may never be stronger or have as much media attention as they have now. So by all means, go for the attack! Start a public debate about policy reform. Put some bad guys in jail! Just do something.

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    brayden king

    October 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm

  5. A Shamus Khan twitter link to a Salon article (http://politics.salon.com/2011/09/28/protests_21/singleton/) offers some analysis of the issue we discuss in this thread:

    “Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions — is destroying financial security for everyone else? Beyond that, criticizing protesters for the prominence of police brutality stories is pure victim-blaming (and, independently, having police brutality highlighted is its own benefit).

    Most importantly, very few protest movements enjoy perfect clarity about tactics or command widespread support when they begin; they’re designed to spark conversation, raise awareness, attract others to the cause, and build those structural planks as they grow and develop. Dismissing these incipient protests because they lack fully developed, sophisticated professionalization is akin to pronouncing a three-year-old child worthless because he can’t read Schopenhauer: those who are actually interested in helping it develop will work toward improving those deficiencies, not harp on them in order to belittle its worth.”

    Is it possible that Singleton and King (I’ve never referred to you by last name alone–consider it ennobling here!) have different evaluations of the movement’s readiness (to change) than movement leaders? If so, who should we trust more, and why?

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    Jenn Lena

    October 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  6. For someone naive about this stuff….the twitter streams etc will leave an interesting trace for researchers (as will footage, if the live stuff is also being recorded, presumably so) – but it would also be interesting to see how the issues/items/strategies/coordination on the white boards evolve (if they are a focal point) over time.

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    teppo

    October 3, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  7. Teppo: One request for an updated photograph of the Org Board: logged. There’s a walk-out for Columbia (NYU, CUNY, SUNY, etc.) planned for Wednesday afternoon that will head downtown. I’ll bring a camera.

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    Jenn Lena

    October 3, 2011 at 7:47 pm

  8. Thanks for the ennobling reference Lena.

    I think Livingston underestimates how much capacity/maturity you need to initiate real reform. Look at the Tea Party movement. In some ways their organizers were much less sophisticated and organized than the Occupy activists, and yet they managed to change the tone of an election season. Small boycotts organized by a handful of amateurs are often more successful than large boycotts organized by professional social movement organizations. The main reason for their success is that they take advantage of media opportunities.

    So no, I don’t think it’s too early to make real demands. I worry that if they don’t make demands now, interest in the movement by those on the sidelines (the MSM, general public) will wane and they will no longer have the leverage to pressure for change. I don’t think you’d be sacrificing movement maturation by doing this. You can continue to build a network of activists and debate the core issues and philosophies while also pursuing a few concrete goals (e.g., let’s start a formal investigation of corrupt crediting rating systems!).

    Singleton is also somewhat wrong about the idea that movements typically develop clarity over time. I think history shows the opposite pattern. Many movements start off with clear goals and then differentiate into schisms and splinter groups as they come to disagree on tactical or policy issues. Perhaps this is ultimately what the activists in this case are afraid of – premature splintering.

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    brayden king

    October 3, 2011 at 7:50 pm

  9. During media blackout,I was at #OccupyWallStreet from the 17 to the 30 http://juancarloshernandezphotographe.blogspot.com/search/label/%23OccupyWallStreet

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    Juan-Carlos Hernandez

    October 3, 2011 at 10:44 pm

  10. Any input on the (potential) effectiveness of the numerous satellite protests that have sprung up/are organizing?

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    undergrad

    October 3, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  11. I think the Tea Party comparison is apt. But not because the Tea Party was also initially unfocused and has diverse goals and claims.

    The Tea Party had a clear beginning in frustration at TARP and government stimulus/economic stabilization efforts. This implies a clear target–the government, and at least one clear goal/claim–less government intervention. Sure, there’s lots of other things that have gotten bundled with this and a lot of contention around what the Tea Party actually is, but this basis was clear. Occupy Wall Street also has implied targets and claims. The name alone suggests the target of the action.

    But the Tea Party had success when it focused in on a target that was more susceptible to its tactics, the Republican Party. Could Occupy Wall Street also coalesce into focusing on a specific field? The question is whether they’ll focus on a target that’s susceptible to pressure through their tactics , be it Wall Street, the Democratic Party, the Federal Government, etc. The demands are secondary to that in this case, in my opinion.

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    cwalken

    October 4, 2011 at 12:11 am

  12. I know I’m strumming the same chord here, but I’m not sure it’s being heard (I’m not pointing toward anyone or group in particular, especially not on this forum, just to be clear):

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/10/03/1022528/-Origins-of-Occupy-Wall-Street-and-Prefigurative-Politics?showAll=yes&via=blog_523784

    This is an Ezra Klein interview with David Graeber (anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of ‘Direct Action: An Ethnography’ and ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years.’ He was also one of the initial organizers of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests.):

    “It’s very similar to the globalization movement. You see the same criticisms in the press. It’s a bunch of kids who don’t know economics and only know what they’re against. But there’s a reason for that. it’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.

    EK: So if you say, for instance, that you want a tax on Wall Street and then you’ll be happy, you’re implicitly saying that you’re willing to be happy with a slightly modified version of the current system.

    DG: Right. The tax on Wall Street will go to people controlled by Wall Street.

    EK: By which you mean government.

    DG: Yes. So we are keeping it open-ended. In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. “

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    Jenn Lena

    October 4, 2011 at 12:35 am

  13. Yes. But I think (and Brayden might agree) that this is a classic reason why these sorts of ‘movements’ tend to be ephemeral without a noticeable impact on policy and society at large.

    On the other hand, I’m sure they’re life changing experiences for the participants.

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    cwalken

    October 4, 2011 at 5:42 am

  14. […] occupy wall street and change – […]

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  15. […] occupy wall street and change – […]

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  16. cwalken – I wouldn’t say that this movement will be ephemeral. It very well could be the start of something much more transformative. My point was just to say that this is what I think they need to do take advantage of the positive political conditions they’re currently in. If they play their cards right, this movement could be the beginning of lasting change or at least become the thorn in the Democrats’ sides (just as the Tea Party is the thorn in the Republican party’s side).

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    brayden king

    October 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm

  17. Brayden is right, The persistence of the movement depends on a lot of exogenous factors. For example, among specialists, it is believed that anti-globalization movement of 1999 was displaced by the antiwar movement of 2001.

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    fabiorojas

    October 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  18. I agree with Jenn here. I tend to think that the “demands” of the movement are actually really clear: a different kind of democratic process with less corporate influence. My friend Matt Stoller (and classmate at St. Paul’s!) has written a interesting piece on this not as a movement, but as a “church of dissent.” I’ve been down there with him a few times, and tend to agree.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/09/matt-stoller-occupywallstreet-is-a-church-of-dissent-not-a-protest.html

    As this protest enters its third week, and the size of the marches increase, I think it’s harder and harder to claim that these people don’t know what they’re doing, to preemptively write their obituaries, or to suggest that because they don’t fit our theory, they are on the wrong path. I would say that the focus on process IS the target of this movement. So the focus on process is not necessarily the problem. Indeed, from within the movement, the political process is the one that needs reforming. And they’re offering a kind of model for how it might be different. Isn’t that a coherent strategy?

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    shakha

    October 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm

  19. You all might also be interested in “The Occupied Wall Street Journal”

    Click to access occupy_wsj.pdf

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    shakha

    October 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  20. It’s a flash mob of idle people cloaked in left wing goobledegook. I am surprised that anyone takes it seriously, except as they disrupt businesses whose operations are beyond their level of understanding. Hose them off the street: they’re holding up traffic.

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    Michael E, Marotta

    October 4, 2011 at 5:52 pm

  21. Never mind the above. It appears to be a hoax. I’d delete it (my comment) but where’s yer functionality, wordpress?

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    Jenn Lena

    October 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

  22. One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Another symptomatic problem of the Occupy […] phenomenon is its own self-conception as an expression of “resistance.” Ever since the close of the Second World War, the concept of “resistance” has risen to prominence within the discourse of the Left, ennobled by the French experience of La Résistance during the Vichy regime. Unfortunately, the teleological valorization of resistance as a sort of virtue unto itself has had a rather perverse effect on protest culture over the last several decades. Instead of calling for a broader project of social revolution, activists have substituted the notion of simply “resisting” the forces of structural domination that surrounds us. Somehow — though the precise way that this operates is never made clear — this is supposed to “subvert” or “disrupt” the powers that be. “Resistance” thus becomes fetishized as a supposedly heroic act of defiance, no matter how effective or ineffective it might ultimately be.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”

    THE LEFT IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE LEFT!

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    Ross Wolfe

    October 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm

  23. […] – “We are the 53%” – Occupy Wall Street FAQ – NYT overview – An early assessment – A social movements perspective – Do police clashes increase media coverage? – You can send them books – #occupywallstreet Share […]

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  24. […] are a few additional orgtheory posts about the OWS. Share […]

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    ows op-ed « orgtheory.net

    October 12, 2011 at 12:45 am

  25. […] OrgTheory.net: Occupy Wall Street and Change […]

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  26. […] like Brayden King and David Meyer have both expressed such worries.  King suggested that “the moment is going to waste,” and Meyer said that the lack of specific demands makes it hard for uncommitted yet mildly […]

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